Good artists imitate; great artists steal. In our new series, Stolen, writers share stories of theft.
It was autumn and warm, late evening, and the shadows were as long as the hot busses that hissed and braked alongside the main library’s midwestern utilitarian grim, lifting trails of dead leaves like a breath of smoke in their wake as they rumbled toward the river. I read the dedication in J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, “To My Wife,” before dropping the book in my backpack and unlocking my bike. I found it somewhat cheering. At least this neglected author managed to find someone. But over the decades, many readers—I later learned—had come to debate this. They said he never had a wife. They said he lived alone; he was a librarian; he was sick when he wrote the book, hence the melancholy that colors his prose. Others said it was not prose but poetry, while others insisted it wasn’t nonfiction but a novel. Even certain filmmakers wanted to lay claim to the text. Werner Herzog told a Rio audience to quit film school. If they wanted to make a movie they had only to read one book: The Peregrine. Classic Herzogian hyperbole, I thought, pushing my bike uphill across the dried grass toward the old capital.
I didn’t know it then, but when J. A. Baker was writing his book, the birds themselves stood on the brink of extinction. Pesticides had created the birdless Silent Spring Rachel Carson announced several years earlier. Baker did not anticipate their survival, and his book is less a work of environmental nonfiction than an aching and ecstatic elegy for a dying world. It was fitting perhaps that his book, with its vibrant avocado green flyleaf, the color of 1960s linoleum, had weathered its own private extinction. In the nearly fifty years that the university library had offered the title, it had only been checked out four times. The Date Due slip was last stamped in 1974. A dull $4.95 had been penciled on the top right corner. The book hadn’t just been lost, it was dead. It had been dead a long time. They couldn’t even sell it.
Along the river, the trees bristled in full autumn plumage. And I thought of the farms behind them and the endless fields of corn, their husks hard, fruit ripe for harvest. There was nothing romantic about Iowa. I considered the whole state merely a factory floor devoted to the production of futile biofuels and fattening corn syrup, but I’d come from Southern California, the land of a single season, the land of no leaves, where the sunshine’s monotony produced its own brand of laid-back insanity, and the bouquet of bright trees, burnished red and gold and groaning, ready to succumb before the earth’s slow orbit that day stung me as I stood in the thralldom of yet another fall.
At the top of the hill, I sat down on the steps. I pulled out the book. An object so forsaken ought to enjoy an evening like this, I thought. Across the river to the north, two hawks swam inside the dusk’s dusty amber. Busses thrummed below. I began to read: “Autumn begins my season of hawk hunting … I have always longed to be part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence as the fox sloughs his smell into the cold unworldliness of water; to return to the town as a stranger.” It occurred to me that the flyleaf was not avocado, and it didn’t belong to linoleum. It was the color of dying grass. And the fragrance wasn’t that of stale cardboard but fresh autumn leaves, and The Peregrine wasn’t a work of zoology but, to my astonishment, a glorious evocation of the moment in which I sat, in which I’m still sitting today, holding that abandoned book, which I never returned, attempting to recapture that glorious autumn and Baker’s astonishing prose, in which “a fragrance of neglect still lingers, like a ghost of fallen grass.”
It is always refreshing to find one’s pessimism put to shame. Seldom have I ever had any expectations so thoroughly denuded as that autumn day. Baker’s masterpiece is still, no doubt, one of the most glorious and neglected in the English language. “I came late to the love of birds,” J. A. Baker writes, and I, too, came late to love his Peregrine. It causes me pain sometimes. Not because I stole his book—I still have it—but because it took so long to save.
Of course, I didn’t save Baker’s book, only a copy of it. But others more worthy than myself have been trying. New York Review of Books Classics reissued The Peregrine (and it’s dry-green flyleaf) in 2005, with an excellent introduction by Robert McFarlane, after it languished out of print for decades. A later HarperCollins edition, from 2010, clarifies the autobiographical “nothing” of Baker’s life and includes his second and last work, The Hill of Summer, as well as an essay and journal fragments.
The Peregrine, itself written in the form of a journal, begins: “October 1st. Autumn rises into the bright sky. Corn is down. Fields shine after harvest.” My luck felt creepy those first few weeks. I took the book home from the library on September 25, and come early October, I began to follow Baker each day, wherever he went, out of autumn and into a freezing Iowa winter and the author’s own snowbound season in East Anglia. While reading, I told nobody about the book. It was a secret that I guarded carefully. I followed Baker’s advice: “Be alone. Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms. Learn to fear.” I knew right off, from the opening pages, that I had something spectacular on my hands, and I feared that if I told anyone about the book, word may spread and someone might request it. Waking in the cold mornings of early winter, I’d look forward to the ritual. While the radiator clicked vainly in the corner, I’d stand before the stove, boiling water in my ramshackle mini A-frame cabin, breath visible in white plumes while the book lay behind me on the table. The old unwanted book—brittle, frayed and forgotten—contained a sacred power, a fragile breath of campfire, that warmed me each morning with my coffee. It continued to warm me over the many months that I carried it, withdrawing, like Baker, from human contact as I ventured further toward the edge of things, into the uncertain ecstasy, isolation, and obsession not of bird-watching but book writing. It didn’t take me the full nine months to read The Peregrine. It took me seven. I never read ahead but followed Baker’s journal entries dutifully, keeping pace, never advancing, only flipping back if I desired to go on reading.
Baker and I emerged together in April after the thaw. I finished the book after seven months, on the fourth of April, the date of Baker’s final entry, the day before my birthday.
My copy is now over three years overdue. I guess I do feel bad about that. But something tells me people have not been lining up to check it out. I hope sincerely that this will change. Perhaps I’ll ship it back. The librarian can put it where it belongs, front and center among the featured titles. J. A. Baker’s prose shouldn’t be a carefully guarded secret. Rather, we should read him regularly and with rapture. I encourage you to purchase Baker’s book, or better, rescue it from the basement of your local library and follow him this fall. Don’t read ahead. If you race through, you will quickly find yourself burnt out by a heat that, properly, doesn’t belong to a campfire, but more, the conflagration of inspiration that must have gripped our early ancestors, driving them mad, propelling them into the basements of black caves where they painted pictures of birds and lions, horses and bulls, in a desperate attempt to articulate something of the natural world’s overwhelming terror and beauty.
Baker’s art rises from a similar impulse. And his incantatory prose forces us, like a shaman or lyric poet, to step outside ourselves and into the edge of things. “The hunter must become the thing he hunts,” Baker says. Ekstasis. It’s no wonder, considering such films as Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Grizzly Man, that Herzog admires him. It helps, too, that he and Baker both share a deep but upbeat pessimism. “Before it is too late,” Baker writes, “I have tried to recapture the extraordinary beauty of this bird and to convey the wonder of the land he lived in, a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa. It is a dying world, like Mars, but glowing still.”
Baker’s greatest achievement lies not only in his ability to recapture through realism the freshness of a primitive gaze—a perception akin to animism, wherein all of nature appears alive, imbued with agency, animated by secret force—but also his invention of language that can translate this previously inarticulate world. In Baker’s prose, we read not of a dying world but rather one alive, born anew each day from darkness. “Yesterday is dim and monochrome. A week ago you were not born. Persist, endure, follow, watch.” The book is, in effect, a gut-wrenching anachronistic dispatch of genuine awe, a poem seemingly penned before the invention of the gods, and as such it is wholly unsullied by sentiment or New Age tinsel. If it contains any flaw, it lies in Baker stating, on page nine, that “detailed descriptions of landscapes are tedious,” and then proceeding to paint upon every page the most detailed and sensorily stunning descriptions of natural landscape that exist in language. The fact he accomplishes all this in the humble well-trodden English countryside, in a territory less than fifty miles from London, makes the book all the more remarkable.
Yet for all the talk of awe and astonishment, The Peregrine is a quiet book. Many might dare call it boring. Its journal structure is repetitive. The intensity of the prose, distilled to the point of poetry, might chafe a hurried reader. There are no characters, not a line of dialogue. No proper names. No plot really. If there is one, it’s not particularly riveting; it’s just Baker drawing closer to the birds he observes and, in so doing, withdrawing from his own species, evolving backward into something more primitive and perhaps more pure. “Wherever he goes, this winter, I will follow him. I will share the fear, and the exaltation, and the boredom, of the hunting life … My pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified.” The landscape is curiously divested of human beings. It’s a narrative conceit similar to that of W. G. Sebald, whose Rings of Saturn inhabits the same desolate stretch of English coastline, and indeed, the only human figure that Baker’s pagan gaze ever lands on could very well have been Sebald himself, then freshly arrived in England in midsixties, and who may have been lost during one of his early peregrinations: “At three o’clock, a man walked along the sea-wall, flapping with maps. Five thousand dunlin flew low inland, twenty feet above his head. He did not see them.”
What is present in The Peregrine, however, beyond one of the most fiercely passionate evocations of nature in the English language, is a technique of description, a technique of ecstasy, really, that has the ability to transform the way you see, to cleanse the window’s perception as it were, and reveal the world in all it’s pure and infinite primal glory. By osmosis, reading slowly, you may find, like Baker, that your “eye becomes insatiable for hawks. It clicks toward them with ecstatic fury … ” Or you may notice more modest things. “Under the wind, a wren, in sunlight among fallen leaves in a dry ditch,” may seem “suddenly divine, like a small brown priest in a parish of dead leaves and wintry hedges, devoted til death.” Sitting outside the library, waiting for the bus this fall, you may find that it’s “one of those rare autumn days, calm under high cloud, mild, with patches of distant sunlight circling round and rafters of blue sky crumbling into mist.” Perhaps, off in the distance, your “feeble human eye” may see a distant murmuration of starlings “rise into the sunset, like smoke above a sacrifice.”
Our species isn’t that old, and yet we forget. In the blink of an eye, we crawled out from the caves, swept across the globe like a cancer, and after two hundred and fifty years of industrial civilization, we appear to be pushing all life toward the brink of extinction. “We are the killers,” Baker writes. “We stink of death. We carry it with us. It sticks to us like frost. We cannot tear it away.” It’s comforting that Baker’s pessimism was also put to shame. The peregrines did survive. But there’s no guarantee today, neither for them or ourselves. In this age of encroaching environmental meltdown, before the only awe and astonishment left to us is our foolishness, we might do well to retrain our gaze. Perhaps we still have time. Although we live in a dying world, like Mars, it’s still glowing. And it shines especially bright in Baker’s masterpiece, The Peregrine.
Barret Baumgart is the author of China Lake: A Journey into the Contradicted Heart of a Global Climate Catastrophe, which won the 2016 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction. His writing has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, Literary Review, Guernica, and Vice, among others.